Exploring Sri Lanka by Train and Bus
Written by: Mama Bea , 16 Jan 2019
In November 2018, as part of our backpacking trip around SE Asia we decided to spend 3 weeks in Sri Lanka. It was a wonderfully magical few weeks spent exploring tropical beaches, colonial fortresses, national parks and bustling cities. We swam in sparkling clear lagoons, saw elephants on safari, hiked around the stunning Sri Lankan hill country and rode on some of the most beautiful train rides in the world. And all on a tight budget with a toddler. The people there absolutely love children and the attention Roscoe got was unreal, from restaurant entertainment allowing us to eat our meal with minimal distraction to offering to make him kid-friendly roti to go with our spicier versions. Not to mention walking on train tracks, learning the names of animals by spotting them in the wild and of course, playing with lots of stones. He had an absolute ball.
Before arriving in Colombo we had spoken to a few other travelling families who said they used cars and quite often, planes, to get around. Now we rather dislike car transport and try to avoid it at all costs, especially when travelling in a new country. I feel travelling in a private car distances us from the environment we're in, we're only observing the life around us and not actively partaking. For me it takes away the immersive experience of travelling in unfamiliar places, which admittedly can totally feel both liberating and terrifying at the same time, but I love that. As such we challenged ourselves to only use local buses and trains (and the occasional tuk-tuk) during our time in Sri Lanka. We planned a very vague circular route around the island and figured we would sort out all the transport and accommodation as we went along, that way we could keep our time as flexible as possible. Almost all the places we stayed in were on AirBnB. We mostly had places with washing facilities so tried to use the cloth nappies as much as possible, but we never had any issue finding supplies for the days when we couldn't use cloth.
We visited Colombo, Galle, Unawatuna, Mirissa, Udawalawa, Ella, Nuwara Eliya, Kandy and Negombo. Spending, on average, 3-4 nights in each place, we managed to stick to a budget of £10-£15 a night on accommodation and around £20 a day for food and transport. Travelling around using mostly buses and trains definitely helped keep our daily spend to a minimum. Between Colombo and Galle and from Ella back to Colombo via Nuwara Eliya and Kandy we took the train and from Galle to Ella via Unawatuna, Mirissa and Udawalawa we took the local buses.
1. Travelling by Train
The Sri Lankan railway was originally built during the 1860s to transport tea and coffee from plantations in the hill country to the port city of Colombo. The Ella - Kandy train route is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. As such we expected it to be busy with tourists and many people advised us to purchase all our train tickets as soon as we arrived in Colombo to ensure a seat. However we were much too unorganised for that, instead we ended up buying tickets on the day of travel. Apart from the Colombo - Galle leg we declined the air-conditioned first class tickets for second class seats situated next to open doors and stunning views. There is nothing quite like leaning out of one of those trains, touristy yes, but still wonderful. The warm breeze whipping through our hair as we weaved around green undulating hills, through silver-white wispy clouds and past numerous lush tea plantations.
When we weren't leaning out of trains (which Roscoe didn't do of course, our parenting isn't THAT questionable) we did always manage to secure a seat and surprisingly the trains were never crazy busy. Most tourists tend to visit Kandy first and travel Kandy - Ella by train wheras we did it the opposite way around, which may have been the reason for this. The train ride from Ella to Kandy is around 7 hours long, we broke it up in the middle by staying in Nuwara Eliya, a beautiful small city nicknamed 'Little England'. It mostly kinda felt like someone had taken a small, green town from the middle of England, plonked it in the Swiss Alps, then covered it with tropical flora and tea plantations. It actually ended up being one of my favourite places in Sri Lanka.
2. Travelling by Bus
Big, fast and loud, our Sri Lankan bus journeys were unforgettable, in a good way. Resembling a large brightly coloured tube on wheels, adorned with neon lights, a banging sound system and screeching brakes, these vehicles hurtled down the sweltering roads, racing past each other in attempts to pick up more passengers. The buses didn't ever seem to really stop, just kind of did an exaggerated slow down, so in order to actually board you had to launch yourself on at exactly the right moment. Don't worry they did allow a little more time for us fumbling tourists though. I certainly needed it when I managed to get completely stuck in the doorway. Why I was ever optimistic enough to think I could jump on with a large baby attached to my front and bumpy rucksack on my back I do not know. The buses were also very busy but we always managed to get seats and all the places they stop are clearly labelled on the side of the bus. We had to change buses a number of times during our journeys and most of the time it was plain sailing and felt totally safe. The conductors always helped us out and most of the bus stations have clearly marked destinations and routes. The only time I felt a little uneasy was when we got off a bus in the middle of a town known as Wellawaya. We were travelling from Udawalawa to Ella and had successfully boarded the bus from the National Park with no trouble. However when we disembarked in Wellawaya we found ourselves accosted by a group of men who claimed there would be no buses to Ella for a few hours. They were very believable but were being overly friendly so we knew something was up. They wanted to lead us to some steps outside the bus station from where the 'Ella bus would eventually depart'. We lied and told them we needed to go buy some food to give us chance to check out the rest of the station, and sure enough on the other side of the building, there stood a bus leaving for Ella in 5 minutes.
We loved those bus journeys though, so much fun and such a budget way to get around. My favourite leg we did would be from Wellawaya to Ella, up through the hill country past overgrown jungle and lush tea plantations. Around white-knuckle hairpin bends where the 1000m we had just climbed made the adjacent valley look like a dark abyss below.
Our time in Sri Lanka was pure magic, and right now as I'm picking lumps of old porridge off an old jumper, it just feels like a distant dream. A whirlwind 3 weeks full of enchantment and adventure. I would love to do it all over again. Maybe one day we will.
Thanks for reading.